Saturday, October 10, 2009

The personality of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan has been painted and presented in several shades by historians and academicians. He has been shown as communalist, supporter of the British Raj, educationist, social reformer, father of Pakistan movement, Urdu-supporter and much more. For a young person though he will be mostly identified with the establishment of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

While there is no doubt that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was a pioneering social worker who set his sights on imparting education especially to the Muslims, no one can deny that his views and thoughts changed with time.

I read somewhere that he was shocked to find that the Hindu members of his Scientific Society wanted the society's journal to be published in Hindi. A strong proponent of Urdu he is also reported to have made highly controversial comments on the Urdu/Hindi issue. He told a commission looking into the education system in India: "Urdu was the language of gentry and Hindi that of the vulgar."

A large number of Muslims saw Urdu as one of the most important tools defining and symbolising the 'Muslim identity and heritage' in India. Urdu was one of the last few branches of the once strong and robust tree of Muslim dominance and power, and with the gradual decline of Muslim powers they felt it needs to be protected and nurtured.

I believe Sir Syed Ahmed's 'transformations' mirrored the complexities of the Muslim society. The end of the great Mughal rule, the increasing might of the British Raj, and the 1857 mutiny pushed Muslims into a corner. They were dejected, perhaps had an identity crisis, and were left to grapple on how to conduct themselves in a British-dominated India. The ones who were the most hit were the Muslims who were Hindu converts and belonged to the low class and were artisans, weavers, carpenters. A change in the religion did not change their economic status or standard of living. This legacy still continues and I believe is one of the major reasons for the 'backwardness' of Muslims in India. The wealthy, educated and well-settled Muslims opted for Pakistan.

Coming back to Sir Syed Ahmed. He gauged the situation of Muslims and realised that the English did not think Muslims could be loyal to them. Bahadur Shah Zafar's titular role in the 1857 mutiny, which also marked the end of the Mughal (Muslim) dynasty, was also a factor that made the British place Muslims below the Hindus. So what did Sir Syed Ahmed do? He thought of establishing a learning center based on the model of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He visited England and impressed by the British education system, established what is now the Aligarh Muslim University.

To meet his objective Sir Syed it seems became very flexible with the British. An educational institute of the magnitude he visualised was perhaps impossible without the support of the ruling Britishers. Recognising this, Sir Syed, who was in the English judicial service, started to make 'amendments' with the British to ensure that they do not paint every Muslim with the same brush.

He figured in the book 'Pillars of the empire' where he rubs shoulders with senior British officers and administrators. Published in 1878, a portion in the chapter on 'The Hon. Syud Ahmed Khan, C.S.I' says:"Even many of the warmest admirers of Syud Ahmed Khan personally, still maintain, his political and social doctrines to be utterly antogonistic to the spirit, and inconsistent with the vitality and progress, of Islam. But though the Naturalists are in a minority, they comprise among their adherents the best educated and the most intelligent of the Mahomedan population, and in reality their influence is far greater than their numbers and is steadily increasing." It is the same Sir Syed who wrote a book countering some offensive directed at Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. The same book also says that his imperfect command of English came in the way of promotions.

The resignation of Syed Mahmud, his son, as a judge of the Allahabad High Court made Sir Syed write about the way Britishers treated the native officers. The man who was seen as pro-British had indeed changed. Sir Syed's utterances on Hindi/Urdu had also galvanised 'Hindi supporters' who sought to make Hindi the primary language. Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, the founder of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) was one of the many who felt that Hindi was being neglected at the expense of Urdu. Pandit Malviya was well versed in law and a famous lawyer at Allahabad High Court.

Interestingly, it is a great irony that during a condolence meeting held for Pandit Malviya, the then chief justice of Allahabad High Court, Kamlakanta Verma also remembered Sir Syed, linking them to their common background in law. I reproduce below the relevant text: "If I may here digress a little, I should like to say that we lawyers have every reason to feel proud of the great services which lawyers in this country have rendered. Confining myself only to the field of education, I wish to remind you that the Aligarh Muslim University also owes its origin to the vision, courage, perseverance, hard work and devotion to high ideals of a lawyer. It was the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College which in the fullness of time, grew into the Muslim University and that College was founded, you will remember, by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who was also a lawyer. Although he was not a practising lawyer, being a member of the Judicial Service of these provinces, he was still a lawyer."


  1. I sincerely feel there is a need to study whether retaining Urdu as the national language instead of imposing Hindi, would have changed the character of India. Hindi, as a language, still continues to face opposition from more than half the states in India. Most Indians still do not know that Urdu was once the spoken language of majority country and Hindi was a minority language.

  2. Thanks Abhijit for your comment. Few would know that Babur wrote his Baburnama in a language known as Chaghatay. Apparently after Akbar none of the successors knew Chaghatay. Chand Bibi of Bijapur who fought against the Mughals knew Persian, Telugu, Marathi, Arabic and Kannada; unlike some of our representatives (and also people) who want to fight on language.